Much of the creative team responsible for “The War Room” (1993), the skillful documentary about the Clinton election effort of 1992, here turns its attention to the difficult birth, short life and abrupt demise of an internet company called govworks.com, an outfit that was supposed to make dealings between individuals and their local governments fast and easy. The idea, as it turns out, was a lot better than the execution, and following an auspicious beginning and some rapid growth, the operation folded after little more than a year.
Given the recent tailspin in the tech-heavy NASDAQ, the unhappy story depicted in “Startup.com” can be taken as emblematic of the general collapse of the dot-com bubble which, with its astonishingly heady IPOs, seemed unstoppable until only a few months ago. As such it’s interesting as an historical document, even though it’s understandably sketchy on details of the business itself–after all, few viewers would be able to comprehend much about software glitches and the finer points of investment banking. What the picture concentrates on, in fact, is the personal conflict which gradually builds between two of its founders, childhood buddies Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman (we see the third of the original partners negotiating a profitable buyout of his shares in the early going). Tuzman is the go-getter money-raiser and pitchman, and Herman the computer nerd overseeing systems design, and for a while their success makes them seem a good team. But as things go sour, they prove unable to continue working together, and one eventually ousts the other, not without bitterness and legal complications. By focusing on the two men, the film humanizes the material and engages us emotionally, even if both of them come across as deeply flawed.
A project like this is clearly a labor of love, requiring hundreds of hours of filming and ruthless editing to trim the footage down to a reasonable length while retaining a sense of complexity. Directors Jehane Noujaim (who also served as cameraman) and Chris Hegedus, aided by editor Erez Laufer, have done the job well; “Startup.com” moves crisply and has been efficiently structured. It also retains some fine stray material which doesn’t advance the narrative but gives the characters depth: the opening shot of Herman engaged in the difficult task of combing his young daughter’s hair–much to her chagrin–is a case in point. If ultimately the plot trajectory is fairly predictable, it’s also consistently interesting. (Given their track record, however, one must wonder about the blurb in the closing crawls informing us that Tusman and Herman later reunited to form a new venture dedicated to advising struggling internet firms; how helpful their suggestions might be to anyone else is doubtful at best.)
For a documentary to get theatrical distribution is an event sufficiently rare to applaud (and support) whenever it occurs. But with these intense would-be entrepreneurs as its focus, “Startup.com” delivers more drama than most fiction flicks being released by Hollywood nowadays. Seek it out, and it should keep you intrigued, as well as serving as a useful cautionary tale about the dangers of investing in such enterprises as the one depicted here.